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The go-between

Switzerland [DIPLOMACY]

Behind the fanfare of the resumption of diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba lie decades of careful Swiss diplomacy. After Washington severed relations with Havana in 1961, Switzerland represented the interests of both countries under a diplomatic protocol known as a Protecting Power Mandate (ppm). ppms allow for diplomatic formalities such as dealing with embassy property but can also be a backchannel for communication.

Switzerland first acted as a protecting power during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, when it safeguarded the interests of the Kingdom of Bavaria and the Dukedom of Baden in France. During the Second World War, Switzerland represented the interests of as many as 35 states. In Budapest, diplomats such as Switzerland’s Carl Lutz and Sweden’s Raoul Wallenberg took the idea of the ppm to a new level. They saved the lives of tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews by issuing them with identity papers and declaring them to be under diplomatic protection.

“For Switzerland, being a protecting power is part of a responsible foreign policy,” says Stefan von Below, spokesman for the Swiss Foreign Ministry. US and Cuba opened Interest Sections in each other’s capitals in 1977. These were formally part of the Swiss embassies but each was staffed by US and Cuban nationals and operated independently as de facto embassies. Berne’s longstanding mandate for US and Cuba “contributed to rapprochement between the two countries”, says Von Below.

Switzerland’s work in Havana is finished but continues elsewhere. Berne represents America in Iran, and Russia and Georgia in each other’s capitals. It did not charge the US for its work in Havana as it was mostly formal but it does levy fees for services provided to the US in Tehran, where Switzerland carries out more comprehensive duties for American citizens, including consular services.

ppms provide a “secure, discreet means of communication through a trusted interlocutor”, says Carne Ross, the founder of Independent Diplomat, a diplomatic advisory group. “Switzerland and to a lesser extent Sweden, and one or two others, have a long tradition of neutrality and are known as trusted and professional channels of diplomatic exchange. In sensitive dialogues such as the US-Cuba discussion before the resumption of formal relations, you want a messenger upon whom you can rely completely. Any miscommunication can have disastrous consequences.”

Ross, a former British diplomat at the UN, communicated with Iraqi officials at a time when the UK had no diplomatic relations with Iraq and before the 2003 American-led invasion. “When you are engaged in highly sensitive discussions you will do all you can to make sure that your message is as clear and unambiguous as possible,” says Ross. “I was incredibly careful with what I said to Iraqi diplomats, making my points repeatedly and as clearly as possible so as to avoid any possible misinterpretation. I was well aware that the nsa and gchq would know exactly what the Iraqis reported of what I said.”

Style leader no. 62

Shadow play

Venezuela [NICOLÁS MADURO]

In 2012, as Hugo Chávez’s health deteriorated – riddled with a cancer the outside world knew little about – he went public with a successor. His name was Nicolás Maduro and, while he had the trust of “El Comandante” and the Castros in Cuba, the former bus driver and trade union leader was seen by some as a surprise; an efficient operator perhaps but without the charisma of his mentor. Since Chávez’s death in 2013 – and Maduro’s narrow election victory afterwards – it has been his job to uphold the revolución in a deeply polarised Venezuela.

“Maduro was chosen to continue a regime rooted in the memory of Chávez,” says Eduardo Gamarra, a politics professor at Florida International University. “For a while his biggest problem wasn’t the US or the international community but those who thought he didn’t embody that memory enough.”

Maduro has sought credibility by emulating his predecessor. Often he swaps a drab suit for the Venezuelan-flag tracksuit top made famous by Chávez. A red shirt – the colour of the psuv socialist party – is another staple.

At times the parroting has drawn bafflement: on the anniversary of Chávez’s death last year, Maduro said the former leader had appeared to him as a little bird. His hand gestures and intonation increasingly attempt to match Chávez’s. Perhaps Maduro’s greatest achievement has been to stay in office this long, despite 2014's violent clashes. Legislative elections in December will be a test, especially if opposition gains force him to pick between appeasing chavismo hardliners and being more pragmatic.

United future

USA [POPULATION]

Racism may be as prevalent an issue as ever in the US – with President Obama declaring that actions not words are needed to combat the problem – yet a recent study shows that racial taboos are continuing to be shattered.

Once, interracial marriage was as controversial as same-sex unions, yet America’s mixed-race population – Obama is among its ranks – feel increasingly confident. According to the report by Pew Research Center, 60 per cent of those polled were proud of their multiracial background. With the mixed-race population growing three times more rapidly than the rest of the populace, it could usher in a new era of tolerance

Stamped out?

Canada [POSTAL SYSTEM]

The morning clatter of the mailbox is an increasingly rare sound in cities across Canada as Canada Post continues to phase out door-to-door deliveries in favour of communal “community” boxes. The move has raised passions and has become a quietly potent issue in the country’s forthcoming general election, to be held on 19 October.

Should it be victorious in the October election, the opposition New Democratic party (ndp) has vowed to reinstate door-to-door delivery, while the Liberal party has also promised to review the policy. But plugging the ca$250m (€175m) deficit caused by the “epic decline” in the use of door-to-door delivery is a necessity, according to Canada Post’s president and CEO Deepak Chopra, as the use of online delivery services continues to increase.

United future

USA [POPULATION]

Racism may be as prevalent an issue as ever in the US – with President Obama declaring that actions not words are needed to combat the problem – yet a recent study shows that racial taboos are continuing to be shattered.

Once, interracial marriage was as controversial as same-sex unions, yet America’s mixed-race population – Obama is among its ranks – feel increasingly confident. According to the report by Pew Research Center, 60 per cent of those polled were proud of their multiracial background. With the mixed-race population growing three times more rapidly than the rest of the populace, it could usher in a new era of tolerance.

Q&A- Simón Gaviria

Head of the National Planning Department, Colombia

Monocle meets the man who is modernising Colombia with his targets for a Bogotá metro, new highways and a shift to eight- hour school days.

Could you tell us more about the main divides within Colombia?
There are three types of Colombia. There’s a very sophisticated Colombia with strong economic growth – 4.7 per cent last year – that has world-class companies and talented individuals. Then there is a second Colombia, which has made great strides in social inclusion and now needs to work more on job creation. And finally, there is a more humble Colombia, which is quite rural. We need to make sure that citizens can enjoy rights, the advances already made in education, access to electricity, water and sanitation, and healthcare.

What are the key priorities for the Colombian government at the moment?
We have made a massive bet on education. We are spending more on this than on anything else – easily more than 10 per cent of our gdp [this is compared to 6.3 per cent in Brazil and 5.1 per cent in Mexico]. We believe education is the most important tool for social inclusion. We are making the transition to a full school day so every child in Colombia can go to school for eight hours a day.

What has been the impact of falling oil prices on the Colombian economy?
We created a realistic investment plan that fits with the expectation of $48 [€44] per barrel of oil. We are seeing a rebirth in the manufacturing sector and agriculture – the two sectors in the economy that have created the most jobs. And that’s happening because our products are more competitive, because we are integrated into the world economy. We have free-trade deals with the US and Europe. We are closer to South Korea, Israel and Turkey. We are in trade negotiations with Japan and we are starting to look at a free-trade agreement with China. On top of that we are investing in infrastructure. We have probably the largest public-works programme in the Americas, building massive highways and the Bogotá metro.

So does that mean that Bogotá will finally get a metro?
It will happen. Bogotá is a dense city. Buses transport four million people a day. The quality of our soil, which is moist, makes it very expensive to build a metro. However, we are building a very large network. The money is in place and we are working with the mayor’s office to make sure that we have a solid foundation, not just the money but in institutional terms. There is a risk of corruption and overspending. We are working to protect ourselves from that.

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